It’s one of the best-selling books of all time, perhaps Agatha Christie’s most popular novel, and yet And Then There Were None, with its numerous editions and various titles, remains itself as mysterious as the genre it made famous.
Without the epilogue, it’s a novel that offers no unveiling of the killer, few, if any, reasonable clues, and provides a fictitious setting – a small island in the shape of a man’s face – one that exists nowhere in the English countryside. Every character in the story is a murderer, and in some respects, they are as dastardly as the killer picking them off one by one. The ending is shocking and each character’s fate ostensibly cruel. Indian Island, like Agatha Christie, took no prisoners. Everything about the novel is unique and groundbreaking, and I think that’s why I liked it so much.
As a young teenager, it was the first book I ever read in a single sitting. And how could you put it down? Ten people with shady pasts are brought together to a mansion on an island during a severe storm and are killed one by one according to a nursery rhyme that is posted in every bedroom. The action was intense and immediate. Within the first night alone, two guests fall victim to the mysterious killer.
I was hooked, and the climax features a character racked by enormous guilt and psychological trauma, the likes of which you see explored mercilessly in movies, TV shows, and books today, but not so much back then. That character, whom I won’t reveal, became sympathetic to me, and yet that very character once let a little boy drown. Christie’s trick, to make you feel for characters that you previously despised, was ingenius to me.
And Then There Were None is always the first mystery novel I recommend to people. Sure, there have probably been better ones, and it might not even be Christie’s best work, but it was the first novel I read that didn’t play by any rules and yet bewitched you with its simplicity.
The most fascinating aspect of And Then There Were None lies in its setting. The house in which the ten victims stay is described as “the essence of modernity.” There are no secret closets or passages in it. No cellar or attic. Windows are everywhere, and the white mansion is “flooded with electric light.” There is nowhere to hide for the victims or the killer, and all parts of the island can easily be seen from one of the many windows. And yet they are dying off, being outsmarted at every turn by a killer who has nowhere to hide.
I suppose the novel, like the house, did more than just your average whodunit. It made typical stock characters deal with each other and their own pasts. There was nowhere to hide. As a reader, I felt that same sense of inevitability. There was no Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to hide behind, no banal mystery tropes, and no happy ending. It was the first novel that was truly unpredictable and rule-breaking, and as a reader, I had to deal with that reality. I couldn’t hide behind the expectation of novel conventions – for there were none.
Eric Magliocca is a teacher and the author of The Red Triangle, an exciting mystery/thriller. He is a frequent contributor to This Awful Awesome Life.